The Dumbing Down of Music [the downside of MP3s]

Seen at both BoingBoing and Slashdot (but really a Rolling Stone article), I have to offer a qualified disagreement with Cory Doctorow on this one.

Rolling Stone:

Just as cds supplanted vinyl and cassettes, MP3 and other digital-music formats are quickly replacing CDs as the most popular way to listen to music. That means more conven- ience but worse sound. To create an MP3, a computer samples the music on a CD and compresses it into a smaller file by excluding the musical information that the human ear is less likely to notice. Much of the information left out is at the very high and low ends, which is why some MP3s sound flat. Cavallo says that MP3s don’t reproduce reverb well, and the lack of high-end detail makes them sound brittle. Without enough low end, he says, “you don’t get the punch anymore. It decreases the punch of the kick drum and how the speaker gets pushed when the guitarist plays a power chord.”

But not all digital-music files are created equal. Levitin says that most people find MP3s ripped at a rate above 224 kbps virtually indistinguishable from CDs. (iTunes sells music as either 128 or 256 kbps AAC files — AAC is slightly superior to MP3 at an equivalent bit rate. Amazon sells MP3s at 256 kbps.) Still, “it’s like going to the Louvre and instead of the Mona Lisa there’s a 10-megapixel image of it,” he says. “I always want to listen to music the way the artists wanted me to hear it. I wouldn’t look at a Kandinsky painting with sunglasses on.”

Producers also now alter the way they mix albums to compensate for the limitations of MP3 sound. “You have to be aware of how people will hear music, and pretty much everyone is listening to MP3,” says producer Butch Vig, a member of Garbage and the producer of Nirvana’s Never- mind. “Some of the effects get lost. So you sometimes have to over-exaggerate things.” Other producers believe that intensely compressed CDs make for better MP3s, since the loudness of the music will compensate for the flatness of the digital format.

Doctorow’s comment on the shift:

“Designing for that, as opposed to lamenting it — is a damned good and realistic thing to do.”

In a sense, he’s right, of course; people should design for the technology that’s available, and the sooner the better.

On the other hand, I think the shift is indeed for the worse – and when digital music technology allows for a more complex and greater range of sound, are we going to engineer audio for that?

I hope so, but I am skeptical. And in any case, the shift to dynamic range compression, wherein everything becomes loud, is not a good one. I hope that goes away too.

In the meantime, can someone please send me a record player and a few thousand albums on vinyl so I can do some research on this very pressing topic?

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4 Comments on “The Dumbing Down of Music [the downside of MP3s]”

  1. Michael Faris Says:

    Why does sound quality trump accessibility? I think you’re being a bit snobby by lamenting the loss of sound quality, especially when most people don’t care about the sound quality that much because they can’t tell (or don’t care to tell) the difference between vinyl and digital. I think you’re following into the trap of aesthetic standards instead of focusing on what really matters: the socio-political production, reproduction, and distribution of music. With that, my battery is dying in this coffee shop in Toulouse. Love!

  2. Dennis Says:

    Michael, you’re so unimaginative!

    We should be able to do both.

    I’m not seriously advocating a return to vinyl – and as I noted, I do see where Doctorow is coming from, and I appreciate his position. Accessibility is indeed important.

    But I’ve noticed the sound quality in the shift from CDs to MP3s as well as the dynamic range compression the article mentions, and it’s obvious that it’s lower quality music, and frankly, what’s driving that shift is very much related to “the socio-political production, reproduction, and distribution of music.”

    There’s no reason for the proles not to get high-quality accessible music these days. It’s within the realm of technological possibility, which means the reason behind the shift is social – and that can be changed.

    Is that clearer?

  3. Michael Faris Says:

    I agree with you that music quality is realted to production, reproduction, and distribution. So, my question is why high quality music? I guess I’m coming from a somewhat “punk” perspective, where a question is: isn’t “quality” a construction of normativity? Why should music “sound good”?

  4. Dennis Says:


    What does “sounding good” entail?

    Is it a function of rhythm? Tone? Pitch? Clarity (lack of unintended noise in the recording)? Lack of mistakes? All of the above?

    In that sense, technical quality/perfection is one answer.

    Aesthetic is another. Does one like how it sounds? (And yes, while we could interrogate why we respond to certain sounds, I’m going to leave that debate for another comment or post entirely.)

    In another sense, all music should sound good – the contents of the term good are normative (unless I am misunderstanding how you are using the term good).

    I hope that’s enough fodder for a response, since I’ve run out of steam for this comment.

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